By the time I was fifteen I was done with religion. My distaste for it hadn’t sprung from the psychological pressures of freaky religious parents. Neither had anybody in the system betrayed, disillusioned, or abused me.
Plain and simple, I was aggravated at finding nothing there. I had been both protestant and catholic. Sandwiched in the midst of all those flat commands, behaviors and traditions, I figured there had to be the dynamite that people kept promising. But the deeper I dug, the dryer the well. Not having found any buried treasure, not even a bone, I walked off vowing, “Won’t get fooled again!”
The psalmist had said, “My cup runneth over,” but I as for me, mine was empty, with cobwebs inside. So it was official. I hated religion and all of it synonyms—faith, spirituality, and apparently, God Himself. I might have grudgingly admitted the system had some constructive benefits, but only in the same sense as something like fungal cream or Castor oil—necessary unpleasantries.
For believers in a lot of places, hating religion is the new black. And well-meaning evangelicals try hard to prove that being Christian is most definitely not about being religious. Then we try to explain what we mean by religion. I’ve heard all kinds of definitions. One says religion is a system of rules that only affects the outside and does not touch the heart. Man-made systems. Human doing, rather than God doing. Human seeking. Human efforts. Externals. Behavior modification.
But the more we try to define religion, the more elusive it becomes—and circuitous as well. We might want to own up to a few realities. For one, the Bible is full of external commands (Yes, the New Testament, too) and it doesn’t bother to ask whether you “feel them in your heart” before you obey them. God doesn’t seem to care whether His commands feel normal to us. Or whether they hurt or significantly challenge us.
Does that count as religion?
In the face of such sticky questions, maybe it’s better to start off by asking from the positive angle what a relationship with Christ feels like. After all, if you want to know the difference between counterfeit currency and the real thing, you learn by studying the real thing, not just the fakes.
What is it like to stand in the presence of Jesus in the here and now? Is it like having a mouthful of Jolly Ranchers? An amorphous cloud of joy and peace? A hovering apparition?
Let’s begin with a few basic clues from Scripture. The Apostle John wrote that Jesus was “full of grace and truth.”1
That doesn’t mean He’s fifty percent grace and fifty percent truth. Christ is full of both all at once. He didn’t have to choose between the two.
Neither do we.
Yet Christians who lean toward social activism, and who don’t like rules, religion, or any suggestion of judgment, tend to choose grace. On the other hand, Christians who are theology nerds, who like religion, who have a hard time getting along with other people, and love talking about hell, choose truth. Okay, that’s an extreme grouping on either end, but everybody occupies the spectrum between those two. We tend, however unconsciously, toward one or the other.
The problem is that choosing one over the other leads to a subtle warp of the Person of Christ. Grace becomes a license for sin. Truth becomes legalism.
But grace and truth together? Now there’s an almost uncomfortable conundrum realized in Christ.
The grace in Christ speaks of unconditional love and acceptance. It’s like the old children’s book, The Giving Tree. That’s the tale of a tree who loves a boy so much that it gives its life and well-being to the selfish kid. The boy eats the fruit from it, swings in its branches, cuts down its trunk to build a boat, and never once says thank you. Finally there’s nothing left but a stump in the ground. After all that sacrifice, what now? the stump only wants to be a comfortable place for the kid to sit. Likewise, there’s no stopping the love of Jesus for us. We can’t make Him hate us. The twelve disciples found this out after denying Him. They left Him when He needed them the most. Simple selfish fear drove them to save their own skin. But after He had borne the horror of the cross all alone, He came and found them at the beach. As they fished, He called to them, “Children, do you have any fish?”2 and then filled their nets so full they could barely drag them.
But at the same time as being endlessly loved in the presence of Christ, we’re also deeply convicted. Like the shrimp trawler that drags its net along the bottom of the sea and scoops up every bit of garbage that might have accumulated there. The net is hauled up on deck, where rubber boots and cans and old toilet seats spill out on deck right there in front of the captain. There’s no hiding from him and no use arguing. This is knowledge of the real you and your most genuine situation. You’ve never been known like this. “No creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”3 That’s the look He gave Peter the night Peter betrayed Him and ran off crying.4 It’s the exposing word He gave to the Samaritan woman about her merry-go-round of husbands5 and to the young rich ruler about his idolatry of money.6
Grace comforting. Truth convicting. All in Jesus, all at once. No wonder His presence creates such a canvass of emotions in us all.
Religion (in whatever form it takes) doesn’t do that. It can’t do that. It tries, but fails like the magicians who aped the miracles of Moses, but who at some point just had to pack up and go home.
That is exactly what I found. You can’t pour out your heart to an ideology and expect to be heard and comforted. A religious habit won’t assess where you are right now in life and challenge you. Practices, which might otherwise be helpful tools, lie there until you pick them up. They don’t reach out and pick you up. Forms and structures can’t speak into the heart of a sorrowful person, saying, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.”
Nothing short of a Person can do all that.